Individualised authentic assessments: Stress-tested in critical times

With the sudden closure of face-to-face teaching with COVID-19 in early 2020 … there was mayhem as universities around the world suddenly and unexpectedly went fully online. Sangster et al (2020) documented this well for accounting subjects. Educators and students alike felt stressed, isolated, unsupported and mourned the loss of their sense of community. Planned assessment strategies had to change rapidly, especially exams, with many going suddenly online.

This was especially an issue in accounting subjects, as many tend to use exams as their major form of assessment. Accounting professional bodies affiliated with IFAC (International Federation of Accountants) will accept any assessment structure if you are able to demonstrate your confidence that students have themselves completed at least 50% of the assessment. So, if you use at least a 50% invigilated exam, the professional bodies will accept this, no questions asked. It is therefore usually easier to have an exam for at least 50% of the assessments for directly accredited accounting subjects. This can be challenging to do with many alternative forms of assessment.

Accrediting the Assessment design

Individualised authentic assessments, if implemented carefully, can be used instead of exams in directly accredited subjects in accounting. You will need to submit evidence of your confidence that students have completed these assessments themselves. We were able to get accreditation for such an assessment structure by providing evidence that the assessments were:

  • Individualised. Students were all allocated a different company, and no company was offered more than once a year. We compiled the master list from countries that use International Financial Accounting Standards for listed companies. This has the dual benefit of providing a large sample pool, and gives students experience with applying international standards.
  • Authentic. Students use real annual financial statements as their source material. They are required to document their learning journey and thought processes. They must also support the work of peers. These characteristics mean that the assessment experience maps closely to professional practice.
  • Grounded in literature. The assessment structure includes points at which students must document their responses to the literature. They must also collaborate with others to build their understanding of it.

COVID-19 meant that assessment by examination had to suddenly move to an invigilated online experience. There were widespread academic integrity issues and a range of stresses (!) for students and academics. Our study was well placed to answer the question: how did students experience these individualised, authentic assessments?

Our approach to evaluating the assessment design 

The context of this study is a large first-year accounting subject at an Australian university. It involves multi-campus and online delivery that supports an interactive online learning environment for students. The students used forums (including a subject Facebook page), blogs, messaging, and other methods (including f2f) to engage with each other, staff, and content.

The subject design integrated assessment, teamwork, teacher-student relationship, and instruction. In this study, the experience by students of individualised authentic assessments was studied in the context of a subject with an integrated set of interventions to support change in how students experience these four aspects of how we learn: relevance structure, conception of learning, motivation, and approach to learning.

The student experience of this assessment design was studied using a phenomenographic approach over a number of years. This study helps us listen to the student voice to help guide the use of individualised authentic assessments. This is part of a larger research program exploring how we can better support our students to actively learn for understanding and developing personal meaning.

The study began before COVID-19, so in addition to examining the students’ experience, it was also ideally placed to examine any changes over this time.

Student Voices on their experience of the assessment

What the students said about their experience of this assessment schedule fell broadly into five themes (sample quotes from students accompany each theme).

  • Interest, curiosity, and motivation

“It was late the Friday night of week one and I was excited about getting a company of my own …”

  • Overwhelming and challenging: reality is not ‘clear cut’.

“I found [this] daunting … reading through [my company’s] annual report … the first question I had … is ‘where do I even start looking?’”

  • Apply concepts to the real world

“I enjoyed reading these chapters [of the Study Guide], they gave insight into financial statements, which I intend to apply to looking into my own company’s financials.”

  • Personal connection

“When I found out my company was [Company name] I felt so relieved. It is about tourism and travel. I love to travel…”

  • Discovery

“I was not expecting a company would audit its financial information and now I am wondering is this a legal requirement?”

A comparison of student voices before, during and after the COVID-19 time periods amazingly showed that the students’ experience of these assessments appeared to have seamlessly continued unaffected by a world-wide pandemic. This assessment structure did NOT cause them the kinds of stresses engendered by moving to online proctored exams (Sangster et al., 2020). For accounting (& business) education, these insights support educators wishing to innovate within accreditation frameworks.

The authors presented this work at the inaugural Sydney University Business Education Research Symposium on 1 June 2023. You can watch their video (16 min) for more information, and more of the student voice.

About the author

Martin Turner

Martin is a senior lecturer in Accounting at the School of Business and Law at Central Queensland University. An experienced private equity manager, Martin has taught more than ten thousand students, face-to-face, in hybrid mode, and online. He has a PhD in accounting and qualifications of MBA, B.Com (Hons1/University Medal), LLB and P Grad Cert (Higher Education).

Maria Tyler

Maria is a well-regarded accounting professional with over fifteen years of teaching experience. She has held CFO and account roles and is a FCPA.